Addressing The Challenges Faced By Mid-Career Bureaucrats

During the UN General Assembly in 2017, President Trump castigated the United Nations for not living up to its potential due to bureaucracy and mismanagement. Lecturing the world leaders, he said “focus more on people and less on bureaucracy.”

Bureaucracies all over the world are infamous for red tape and their self-serving approach. Pakistan is no exception. In fact, if anything, the notoriety of our bureaucracy runs exceptionally high, due to its red tape and inefficiency, at least in terms of public perception about it. The label nokar shahi best reflects the general dissatisfaction with the system. The civil servants are often seen as inaccessible and arrogant who surround themselves with a lot of pomposity while being on the payroll of the general public. However, despite the burden of accusations the bureaucracy carries, many young people in Pakistan still aspire to join this tribe of civil service professionals.

Being a civil servant is not always an easy job, notwithstanding the perception that bureaucracy is a community of laidback individuals. The job demands adequate knowledge of the cobweb of laws and rules as well as social, interpersonal and professional skills in order to execute day-to-day tasks. Here we will discuss the life of a mid-career civil servant: the skill sets they must possess and the challenges they face as part of their job.

In an organisation, mid-career officers are the wardens who regulate the traffic of files that flow top-down as well as bottom-up in the hierarchy of the organisation. They have years of managerial experience and knowledge of common public issues. They know how the system works; how laws are enacted; and how their own role helps in implementing the laws and keeping the system running.

Typically, mid-career officers are at the basic pay scale 18 with about 12 years of work experience in the bureaucracy. They are both a subordinate of the boss, and a boss of the subordinate, taking instructions from above and then sending them down below. The existence of mid-tier in the hierarchy is not without its utility. Since the bureaucratic system is strictly governed by rules and legal formalities, the files addressed to the organisational head need to be aligned with rules and to be complete in all respects. Even a minor lacuna can trigger red tape. In this scenario, the mid-level officers play a key role in moderating or rectifying the contents of a file or scrutinising them to see if they are eligible for further processing. Sometimes, they dispose of cases at their own level using power delegated to them without needing to send them further upward. And as strange as it may sound, this hierarchal setup saves time.

Service in the middle of the career is not a bed of roses as the job becomes demanding and the pressure to do more builds up at this point. For instance, when an organisation is dragged to the court for some reason, it is mostly mid-level officers who are deputed to deal with the courts by attending the hearings, and preparing and presenting the necessary documents. Within the organisation, they have the job to incorporate well-thought-out proposals to the seniors and mentor the juniors. According to Nathan Jamail in his book Serve Up, Coach Down, it is the most essential hallmark of mid-career leaders to adopt a coaching approach towards their subordinates and teams. This approach seeks to make their teams more resourceful by identifying flaws in their professional work and constantly encourages them to understand necessary concepts and learn the rules governing the organisation’s business. Through the professional nurturing of their teams, the mid-level officers contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of organisational performance.

Similarly, it is followed by another imperative for mid-career professionals to understand the leadership style at the top tier of the organisation. Leadership styles vary from individual to individual, and every new secretary brings in his or her own unique way of doing things. Therefore, understanding their approach is crucial for the smooth and efficient running of the department. Thus, mid-career leaders need to be aware of the various management styles. For example, an organisational boss can be a ‘thinker decision maker’ who reads a lot and is hard to persuade. Such an individual demands details before making a decision. Secondly, there is the ‘charismatic decision maker’ who is more result-oriented and takes swift decisions to bring out results. Thirdly, there is the ‘controller decision maker’ – a person who needs structured arguments and prefers to implement his or her own ideas. Fourth, the ‘follower decision maker’ relies on precedents and sees how decisions were made in the past on similar cases. And finally, the ‘skeptic-decision-maker’ lacks trust in the credibility of proposals and tends to suspect before endorsing suggestions and making decisions.

The mid-career leaders have the responsibility to tailor the proposals as per the leadership style of their boss before forwarding the proposals received by them further up the hierarchy.

Similarly, it must also be an intrinsic quality of mid-level managers to know how to invest their time most efficiently and effectively. No matter what family and wealth background an individual possesses, time is an indiscriminately scarce resource that needs to be spent in the most resourceful manner. It is important for mid-career officers that they should not delay work thinking there is enough time. Rather they must prioritise what’s meaningful and important in their professional life.

Then, the next important feature of mid-career officers is sound investment of their experiences to stay more productive. A mid-level manager has accumulated sufficient experience in different managerial and administrative situations. Now, at the mid-level stage of their career, they have gained enough maturity to know how to brief their cases, incorporate inputs, attend and prepare for meetings, and manage both their bosses and subordinates. A mid-level leader’s experiences are his or her non-current assets, which can be utilised wherever he or she is posted.

More importantly, mid-level officers are also required to make patient efforts to devote their time to reading laws, rules, regulations, policies, manuals and codes etc. They must be well-equipped with all legal instruments encountered in one’s professional life. The more they read, the more clarity they get. As in Yuval Noah Harari’s apt phrase, “clarity is power…” it is imperative for mid-career managers to derive their power and confidence not only from their position but also from their clarity.

Lastly, the most important objective of mid-career officers is to focus on mastering their interpersonal skills through extensive reading and by learning tactics to improve their behavior while interacting with individuals from diverse backgrounds and working with teams in their professional lives. These interpersonal skills include mastering the art of communication, including verbal, non-verbal, listening, the art of arguments and negotiations, evidence-based problem-solving and conflict-management, ‘expectations management skill’, emotional intelligence, assertiveness with empathy, ‘meditation’,  and presentation coupled with the art of data analysis and storytelling.

Hopefully, mid-career leaders get equipped with theoretical knowledge of all these skills in their mid-career management course. By the completion of the course, they must also embrace change through learning and updating themselves with the use of modern technologies by introducing them back to their respective departments. Certainly, tech knowledge reduces the dependency of those in leadership positions on their subordinates and colleagues.

At this transitional phase of their career, mid-level officers must also try their best to gain better scholarships by earning a degree from a foreign university in order to get expertise in any specialised field in management and governance. However, even if someone is unable to get a scholarship, he or she should not get disheartened and should focus on reading to improve their skills. Finally, no one in a mid-level management career should worry when they realise that they lack a certain skill. Instead, they should know that any art, craft and skill can be honed at any age, though mastery over any art requires consistent and sustained efforts to pursue and hone until it becomes second nature. Hence, self-improvement is the destiny of a mid-level officer, aimed to build his or her own personal power and influence until he or she moves on to a top-level managerial leadership position in the future.