Yet, that is exactly what is happening at a key pinch point in the executive career path, in countless organisations in the UK, Europe, and across the world. Fortunately, while there is no easy or simple solution, there is something that HR can do to address this common mid-career crisis.
There is a point in the careers of many middle managers and senior executives when they look back and realise that they have achieved much of what they had hoped to achieve. They have reached a level of competence or seniority, remained there for some time, completed a number of lateral moves, but made little further progress up the management hierarchy.
That realisation may bring with it conflicting emotions, accomplishment for making it so far, a sense of hollowness or regret, an "I've got twenty years to go before I retire" feeling about what is to come. Invariably, though, this moment prompts some difficult questions about career and life. Is this what life is all about? Is this as good as my career gets? Do I want to repeat the last few years, over and over?
Many people stick with it, carrying on as they are. Others leave to search for fulfilment elsewhere. Either way, it is probably a bad outcome for their current employer.
Those individuals that stay often move motivationally from radical engagement in what they do, to comparative indifference. When this happens, often without realising, people cease to apply as much imagination, creativity and discretionary effort to their work. That is a serious problem. No organisation can afford to lose the willingness to experiment and innovate. Creativity is the key competitive differentiator in modern organisations.
The values of executives can also start to diverge from the values of the organisation they are working for, probably because the organisation itself has changed, but no one faces up to this. There are an alarming number of people who have risen to senior positions but still have a relatively limited self knowledge, and do not fully understand their own capabilities, shortfalls, or reputational blind spots. A great number of people still entertain limiting beliefs or images about what they can and cannot do. Individuals think about their past and not present self - the things they couldn't do, didn't used to be, rather than what they are able to do.
The danger is, too, that these situations are often hidden. A lack of realised potential, people being unproductive, and not performing to their maximum, is difficult for line managers and HR to detect.
Alternatively, disenchanted but talented managers and senior executives might easily pursue other opportunities, take their skills and market them in the outside world. An equally unsatisfactory result.
Fortunately, steps can be taken to deal with the mid-career crisis situation, and, at a systemic level, prevent such situations arising in the first place. The solution is to achieve abetter understanding of what personal fulfilment and meaning looks like for individuals, through the right kinds of career conversations, coupled with a more open approach to managing and developing senior talent.
We must fundamentally change the nature of the ongoing conversations conducted with people in organisations. Increasingly, organisations employ sophisticated succession and talent management systems and processes. Often, though, the coaching and interpersonal career conversations are missing.
Managers on both sides of the table may find these types of conversation difficult. People talk about emotional Intelligence, recognising and controlling your own emotions, recognising and empathising with the emotions of others. This is essential. But, if we are to prevent the mid-career crisis arising, we must go further and tap into something more essential, more spiritual even. It is about meaning and fulfilment.
Many people and organisations find emotional literacy difficult. But, if organisations want their middle managers and senior executives to stay, and to contribute to their maximum, they must create a culture where emotionally and spiritually honest conversations are possible and encouraged.
Ask a simple question, for example: How does it feel to work here? Does it feel enlivening, exciting, - if it does, it is fine to say so. Equally, though, if someone feels nervous or insecure, does not know whether their manager appreciates them as a person, feels inadequate about their abilities, finds work unchallenging and unrewarding, these emotions must be expressed, acknowledged, and discussed.
At the same time, we need a bolder, more fluid and open approach to managing senior talent. Organisations must find ways to create time and space for people to find fulfilment while working. That might mean encouraging people to serve on other boards, to volunteer or work in the third sector. Secondments can be arranged, talent swaps with other organisations for senior executives doing great work, but who need new project challenges. Recognise the experiential value and potential for personal enrichment of working in other ways and other places.
For HR this approach takes courage. But rather than worry about enriching the abilities and working lives of talented employees, only to see them leave, remember the world of work is changing. You cannot chain talent to an organisation; instead, you must understand and recognise the need for personal fulfilment and, in many cases, in order to get the most from your best people, find ways of liberating them to find that fulfilment.
Chris Welford leads Serco consulting’s organisational psychology and change service line