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Change Anything QA

How to Save a Stagnant Career

Dear David,

What should I do if I believe I have reached my “peak” in my company and professional growth is stagnant? I posed this question to HR and managers only to receive dull feedback, which makes me feel they have no ideas or suggestions. I suggested I earn another bachelor’s degree in a field we need, but the tuition assistance program only permits me to take classes directly related to my current position. I have my letter of resignation ready to go and am simply waiting for the job market to improve, but I hate to start over again and prefer to avoid it if possible. What should I do?

Needing Growth

Dear Needing Growth,

Thanks for your question. Many people are in your position—often without even knowing it. Their careers have stagnated and their jobs may even be at risk. This is a tough situation, but there are actions anyone can take to regain control of a stalled career.

We studied this question while writing our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success. We went into organizations and asked people: “If you were facing a really tough problem at work, and had time to get input from someone in your work group, who would you go to for the best, most trustworthy advice? You can name up to three people.” We found there was a lot of consensus on who these people were. We got what statisticians call a “power curve.” Half the people weren’t named by any of their peers; however, about ten percent were named by nearly half of their peers and were recognized by everyone as the “go to” people. Not surprisingly, managers also named them as the most promotable.

When we look closely at these highly valued individuals—across a wide range of organizations—we learn they share the same three characteristics:

1.  Know Your Stuff. These promotable people are top performers at their current jobs, and put in regular effort to stay on top. If they are software developers then they are among the most skilled at writing code. If they are salespeople then they are among the most skilled at closing sales. They work hard to keep current and hone their craft.

2. Focus on the Right Stuff. Top performers seek out the problems that have the greatest strategic importance to their team, their manager, and their organization—and find ways to contribute in these areas. How do they get to these mission-critical assignments? First, they are intensely interested in understanding their teams’, managers’, and organizations’ priorities, and the challenges these priorities entail. Second, they equip themselves to make their best and highest contribution to addressing these challenges. They work on themselves, their skill set, and their access to critical tasks.

3. Build a Reputation for Being Helpful. Top performers are networkers. But their networks aren’t just a collection of business cards and friends. These promotable people use their expertise and time to develop a reputation for being helpful. They become widely known and respected by others because they help others solve their problems.

With this as a backdrop, consider what you can do to position yourself for career growth inside your organization, or potentially in a different organization. Begin with an honest, steely-eyed assessment of where you stand on the three characteristics of highly valued employees. Do you have a reputation for knowing your stuff, focusing on the right stuff, and being helpful?

Second, work to improve your reputation in these areas. Begin by asking some questions that are a bit different from “what are my career opportunities here?” Instead, get some informal time with the leaders and peers you respect most, and ask them about the most important priorities they see, the most critical challenges they face, and the best way you can help them achieve their goals. There is nothing wrong with asking about career opportunities, but those questions haven’t yielded the results you want. So, try asking questions that will help you build your reputation.

As you discover key priorities and challenges, you may learn you need to skill up, but it’s doubtful you need another bachelor’s degree. It’s more likely a few classes, a certification, or a volunteer assignment will get you the skills and experience you need. For example, if you are trying to get into a project management or supervisory role, can you find a well-known nonprofit organization in the community that would have a specific short-term project you could assist them with in the evenings or on the weekends? You could then add these classes, training certifications, and experiences to your resume and include the people you worked for as references.

These suggestions require that you don’t allow yourself to be limited to what your organization is willing to sponsor. Instead, you may need to invest your own resources and time outside of work in the short-term to achieve your long-term goals. I also want to emphasize the importance of maintaining strong relationships with HR and your management team. You don’t want to have the reputation of a dissatisfied employee—a complainer. That would undercut the very reputation you are trying to build.

I wish you the very best in your career development.

David

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David Maxfield

David Maxfield is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for organizational change. For thirty years, David has delivered engaging keynotes at prestigious venues including Stanford and Georgetown Universities. David’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500.
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8 thoughts on “How to Save a Stagnant Career”

  1. A few more thoughts on this topic. First, this person may want to seek some honest feedback as to his or her performance and, more importantly, how he or she is perceived in the company. The responses he/she got may indicate that he or she is NOT well regarded in the company and not considered promotable or worth further investment (education, opportunities, etc.) Since the unhelpful responses came from both HR and managers, this may well be the case. Second, a company’s policies (like the tuition policy) are designed for a broad range of needs, not the career ambitions of a specific individual. Your advice was dead on: individuals need to invest in themselves.

  2. I agree with David and with Pat’s response. As a trainer and software implementation consultant I have done what you suggested and it is working. I earned the CPLP certification from the American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) – graciously sponsored by my organization – which really helped me nail down the over-arching view of my industry. I started doing some side work for a consulting company in the evenings and weekends and now I even take a day or two off here and there to facilitate for that company.

    I know there are still a couple of areas that I can really improve in and those are my current focus. Some years ago I had the “what’s in it for me” perspective “tamped down” just a bit. Turns out, as an employee that isn’t as viable a perspective as we might think. I am trying to focus more on “what’s in what I am doing right now – for you” – whether by “you” I mean a customer, my boss, my direct reports, or the company as a whole. Not only is it more productive, it is infinitely more satisfying and when I think it might be time to move on, I really come at that thought process from a much more confident and interesting position.

    I also volunteer with the local chapter of the ASTD. That has helped my confidence and my viability in the marketplace. Best wishes to the writer and to all the rest of us trying to find our way in the world!

  3. I see Ralph has made the point I was going to say.
    In that you may think you have ‘peaked’, but I am sure your customers are not at a peak, or your team and organization are probably not at a peak, so there are most likely unlimited areas to grow and improve (and make a diference) within that. All the best.

  4. I agree with all the points that have been made and would like to add a thought that I heard this week from a very high level executive at a huge company (280,000 employees). He used the analogy of his son’s growth patterns. The boy seems to grow out first and then stretch out again and gain in height, then vertically again, and then more height. He thinks this is how employees need to think about advancement and development – build your base horizontally as much as possible in order to advance vertically. Without the broad base (often gained through lateral moves or projects that take you in to new territory), your advancement vertically may never happen. Be willing to move to roles that don’t necessarily advance your salary. That way, you won’t have to “start over” at a new company; you are growing within your own without “peaking.”

  5. FWIW; a second bachelor’s degree seems really, really odd. Bachelor’s degrees aren’t normally vocational; they aren’t aimed at making you great at a single job, but aimed at making you eligible to gain more skills to later make you great at a wide range of jobs.

    If you already have one bachelor’s degree… additional bachelor’s are a career step backwards. If you want more skills and a broader certification, get a certificate, not a second bachelors. If you’re all in, and want to potentially increase your responsibility and your salary in doing so, consider a masters degree after choosing very, very carefully. (And realize that a huge part of many masters degrees is also networking, again, not vocational knowledge.)

  6. Great article. I work in the federal government in the science sector and many of us don’t know what to do when we hit the glass ceiling. We need intellectual stimulation and development, but don’t know how to find an opportunity in which we can obtain that. I have shared the piece with my leaders. Thank you for continuing to provide useful insight regarding work, life, and everything else. Best wishes for 2016.

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