Professionals generally expect that, after the hard work of getting qualified, their career will progress steadily. Though what exactly ‘career progression’ means tends to be different for each individual. For example, whereas one person might be strongly motivated to climb the corporate ladder by taking on increasing amounts of responsibility, career progression for another could mean becoming renowned for their specialist expertise. Sometimes professionals are unclear how exactly they want their career to progress but they are committed to continuing professional development and keep a lookout for career advancement opportunities.
But however carefully you have planned and invested in your career, be aware that there are times when professionals reach a point where their career seems to have stalled; a much desired step up the corporate ladder is just not happening or work in the fields they have worked hard to develop expertise is just not coming their way.
It’s important to recognise signs that your career might have stalled and to be proactive in responding to them. Depending on the factors involved there is much that professionals can do to change the situation. Before reacting to the signs however, it’s also important to check that you have made a correct diagnosis and not confused some common career stages with a stalled career.
Whilst none of the following factors in isolation is proof that your career has stalled, each should cause a professional to stop and think and, if three or more of them reflect your situation, it’s probably time to consider some remedial action. Potential signs that your career has stalled include:
- You worked hard to position yourself for promotion and you’ve been passed over.
- People with less experience than you have been promoted faster than you.
- Your role and responsibilities have not changed in over a year.
- The scope of your role and responsibilities has shrunk.
- Interesting projects in your areas of expertise have stopped coming your way.
- You’ve been applying for jobs outside your current employer with disappointing results.
- The enjoyment you used to derive from your work has evaporated.
- Starting on Mondays you look forward to each weekend.
- You are seldom asked to provide an opinion when you have the experience and knowledge to do so.
- Others at work seem to know more than you do about important projects and changes.
- Your outlook about your work is mostly critical and cynical when it used to be generally positive.
- Your dissatisfaction at work is adversely affecting other parts of your life.
Options and taking action
When it’s clear that your career has stalled there is a great deal that you can do to address the situation. Asking yourself five key questions will set you on track for regaining career momentum.
1. How well are you managing your career?
Professionals whose careers progress is satisfactory or exceeds their expectations know the value of career planning and career management.
Have you created a personal, documented career plan? If not, the possibility that your career has stalled should be a trigger for creating one. A career plan provides a roadmap and an important point of reference especially when you are no longer sure where you are heading.
A career plan should never be regarded as a finished document; rather it should always be a ‘work-in-progress’ – something you return to regularly to review and potentially make changes to as your experience grows and your career aspirations and overall life needs change.
No career plan in place yet? The possibility that your career is stalled is a good time to think about career goals, what you have done to date to progress towards them and what you have yet to do. Seek professional assistance if you are unsure about how to make a start on this important document.
2. Is your resume up to date and relevant?
Whilst your resume is rarely a ticket to your next job, it does play a significant role in whether or not you get beyond square one in the selection process. Your resume should be up to date not only in recording the roles you have held but also in expressing what you have achieved and the value to your employer.
It can be very helpful to secure the help of an independent person to help review your resume – someone who will give you candid and constructive feedback about how well your resume promotes you and your potential. They can also make suggestions about how to improve your resume if necessary.
Resume relevance to the role that interests you is crucial too. For example, all too often professionals apply for management work without revising their resume from when they were looking for technical roles. Your resume should emphasise the skills and experience that are most relevant for the job you want. Even when you are applying for your first management role, be sure to highlight relevant experience; for example, coaching less experienced staff, managing projects and liaising across different disciplines at work as well as any management/leadership experience you have gain in non-work settings such as a sporting or service club.
3. Are you paying enough attention to workplace relationships and politics?
Doing your job to a high level of technical competence is just part of what it takes to be successful at work. Are you also seen as a team player? Do you see others’ perspective? Are you considered to be someone who can work constructively though differences of opinion? In most settings, career success partly depends on your ability to effectively manage relationships at work including the political dimension.
Building good working relationships is an essential part of managing your career for success. This is true both inside your own organisation and in your work-related dealings with people beyond your own organisation.
The political dimension of workplace relationships is about the use of power, influence and authority. The ability to handle workplace politics is an essential skill for professionals, yet many neglect this important area of professional development. For more about politics at work see the Management Insights article Office politics: more than a game.
Finally remember that one of the most important relationships for you to manage well is the one you have with your direct manager. See the Management Insights article Managing Upwards for more about this.
4. Are you value for money?
When you’re looking for reasons why your career seems to have stalled it’s wise to be aware of how your pay and other conditions compare with others in your profession and in your industry. Especially when you have been with the same employer for a number of years you can get to a situation where your pay significantly exceeds other professionals with similar experience and qualifications. You can have all the right skills experience and connections needed to secure the role you want but being too expensive can be a deal breaker.
5. Are you in the right profession?
This can be a very confronting question for professionals who have trained for many years to become qualified in their chosen profession. Yet the realisation that the profession for which they initially trained is not for them in the long term and having the courage to change direction have led many professionals on to highly satisfying careers in other fields.
If there is a possibility that you have chosen the wrong career direction an important next step is to think about the skills and experience you have accumulated and their transferability. This helps identify opportunities for career development and any skills that are missing from your portfolio.
When the signs seem to indicate a stalled career professionals should always be alert for a wrong diagnosis. A career can appear to have stalled when in fact things are just taking longer than you had anticipated.
For example a local government professional was confident that she had accumulated the experience and track record to move to the next level. As an HR professional she knew that her first management role would not be available with her current employer in the foreseeable future so she began applying for jobs externally.
She was initially pleased by her success in being short-listed from large numbers of applicants but soon became frustrated by repeatedly losing out in the late stages of the recruitment process. Eventually her level of frustration with what she labeled her ‘career dead-end’ made her think about abandoning her search for a management role. However she was inspired to continue when her mentor reminded her that the higher you climb on the career ladder the fewer roles there are and the more candidates. The aspiring manager then realised that whilst her resume was getting her short-listed her impatience was now jeopardising her chances of achieving her goal.
Over the course of your career the pace of progress will vary. In the same way that 60kph can seem very slow when you have been driving down the freeway at 100kph there are times when career progress can seem relatively slow. Keep in mind that a stalled career has very different characteristics from one that is just progressing a little more slowly.
Looking for more ideas?
For members with an interest in extending their reading about the topics covered in this article the following articles are available on the website:
About the Author
Dr Janet Fitzell is an independent organisational consultant and facilitator specialising in organisational development and team dynamics through her company FourLeaf Consulting Pty Ltd (http://www.fourleaf.com.au/). She facilitates strategic planning and team development undertakes organisational reviews coaches individuals and teams and generally helps organisations to build sustainable futures.
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